by Jessica Pitchford
You can’t help it. The town is called Dudda, and as you walk through it—somewhat gingerly, for the slow ache that’s already started creeping up your body—you can’t resist thinking, I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag. Somebody bet on the gray.
You’ve spent the day on a bike tour of Tuscany with your little sister, an Iraq War vet now stationed in Naples. She invited you to stay with her for the month of June, and because you teach and have the summers off, you jumped at the offer. She bought the plane ticket. And now you’re killing time until the restaurant opens at 7:30—which is early for Italians, and 1930 hours according to the military conversion watch your sister also bought for you because math isn’t your forte.
Dudda has three things: a hill, at the top of which is an outdoor restaurant where you will eat purple octopus and drink a mezzo litre of Chianti Classico, and at the bottom of which is a stonewalled Catholic Church. You’re standing with your sister in the church parking lot, not talking to one another—it’s been hard to know what to say—taking pictures of the street and the church and the rows and rows of grapes along the surrounding hillsides when a nun appears at the top of the hill, a black and white vestige of a time gone by, somehow seeming even older than Dudda. Instinctually, you raise your camera and take her picture. She starts waving at you, coming down that hill like she’s on a mission.
“Oh shit. I think we’re in trouble,” you say to your sister.
Mortuary Affairs. That’s the unit she volunteered for in Iraq. She doesn’t like to talk about it, but you know what she’s done. What she’s seen. The necessary tasks and how everything you’ve ever experienced can’t possibly compare.
The nun is short like you, pocket-sized—you hate that description now because you think of the soldiers’ pockets your sister had to sort through—with hair as white as the trim of her habit. She is upon you. And she’s smiling. She’s not angry. She wants to talk with you. She doesn’t speak English, but she wants to tell you a story. Your sister knows enough Italian to catch it in snatches and translates. The nun acts it out as she goes. She touches you often, an unabashed physicality that feels very foreign. She wants to know if you’re Americans. “Si,” you nod. You say that a lot, even if your sister can’t catch all that the nun is asking. Your sister tells her you’re from Arkansas. Immediately the nun says, “Bill Clinton?” and grins really big. “Si,” you say.
Your sister, who is 5’10,” looms like a giant next to the nun. And yet you’ve never seen your sister so gentle. So patient. You’re not sure why it surprises you. After all, you’re the one who held up the bike tour, threatening to vomit, dragging at the end and electing to push the bike uphill while one of the tour operators followed at a snail’s pace in the van behind you. You’re not out of shape, but you’re not in it, either. Your sister is a Marine. She didn’t have to come off her bike or wheeze at the scenic overlooks. This embarrasses you but didn’t seem to bother her. She paced herself and kept calling back, asking if you were okay.
The nun is telling a story about another American tourist who’d come through Dudda the day before. On a moped. Wearing a polka dot mini-skirt. To demonstrate, she reaches out to you, hikes up the knee-length skirt you’re wearing, the one you traded your biking shorts in for after the ride because it felt less restricting. She lifts it pretty high. The nun is laughing at her own story. You look at your sister and shrug. You all laugh together.
The nun wants you to take her picture, and so you have her pose with your sister and you snap a couple, hoping they’ll turn out. As you focus them in the frame, you can’t know if the nun really likes you or why she stopped to talk. You can’t know if your sister is thinking of death, if the bodies she diagrammed—the grayed-out portions of the parts missing—can ever leave her mind. You can’t know how it won’t be your sister but you who’ll drink too many glasses of wine and get teary over her octopus. But you’ve got a pretty good idea. It’s finally time for dinner, and so the nun leaves—you’re sorry to see her go—and you and your sister make your way quietly back up the hill.
You trudge on, still feeling the weight of her hand at your hem.